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Steven Depolo

Ex-Comcast customer service chief on Philly’s survey problems: It’s ‘politics as usual’ (guest column)

Philadelphia is in the process of renewing its franchise agreement with Comcast. As part of that process, the city commissioned CBG Communications to conduct the study. You can review the full report here. But the report itself needs a little explanation.

The study: The devil’s in the details

The study had a random sampling of 800 phone surveys conducted with 400 Comcast subscribers and 400 non-subscribers, as well as a paper and online poll that were open to any who had something to say about the cable giant. According to the Inquirer, 3,200 people responded to the public survey. CBG also talked with staff who manage the public access channels for the city, school district and local colleges, as well as a review of infrastructure.
We all know that Comcast has an opportunity to improve their customer satisfaction scores, as the company has admitted. The survey found similar opinions throughout the documentation. The No. 1 opportunity for the company is price. I think we can all easily agree that is a challenge for cable providers.

But the first thing I noticed in reviewing the detail is that the survey compared pricing data obtained from phone surveys to other cities, but they utilized survey data that was not apples to apples. They utilized 2013 data for Philadelphia, 2011 data for Denver, 2012 for Portland and 2011 for Vancouver/Clark County. (Think about how much your cable bill has gone up since 2011!)

The report tends to focus on public, government and educational access channels, and you see the careful wording used within the survey to portray the importance of these channels. Here’s how it’s described:

“…and is regularly viewed by [X]% of cable subscribers, who are aware of the local access channels in Philadelphia on at least a monthly basis.”

The document goes on to outline usage but never quantifies just how many people did not know they had these channels. It then indicates that these channels, based on these results, see similar ratings to Comcast-owned channels such as CNBC or Bravo. This creates the following finding:

“Compared with commercial cable networks, including Comcast networks, governmental access programming in Philadelphia attracts a high number of viewers with 20% of the respondents watching weekly, including six percent (6%) watching more than five hours a week.”

Really?

Pretty graphics, but no scientific polling

After going over the phone survey, the report shifts to the online survey, that anyone could fill out. This is where they place all the pretty graphs and show the dissatisfaction with the company. I will never give the company a free pass on poor service, but at the same time I would not hold this up as a proof point. The people who would take the time to complete an optional survey like this have their own reasons for doing so. I am sure many of the gripes are accurate, but the reality is the results are not scientific in any manner. Here are two quotes that were part of the “Final Comments”:

Phone Survey Final Comments

“When all respondents, subscribers and non-subscribers, were given a final opportunity to add any additional thoughts about their Comcast cable television service, a majority indicated that there was “nothing” else to add (58%). Among those who did respond (42%), the most frequent responses included: comments again emphasizing that cable costs too much (18%); they thought that Comcast was doing a good job (7%); Comcast had poor customer service (7%); and encouraging more cable competition in the marketplace (3%).”

Online Survey Final Comments
“Online respondents were asked in an open ended question if there was anything additional to their response to the survey questions they would like to say about cable television service in the City.87 This question was posed to all subscribers and non-subscribers; 1,759 respondents provided additional comments. The respondents’ volunteered final comments were reviewed and 4% of respondents provided favorable comments (some of these also provided negative comments) regarding the company, its employees or its service88. However, 99% of respondents also provided unfavorable comments. The list below represents the top nine (9) most common words/phrases (representing 69% of the respondents) related to the respondents unfavorable comments.”

So 99 percent of people, given the chance to vent anonymously, said negative things. Shocking.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems

Much will be made about this report, but in my view it is much ado about nothing more than politics as usual. The report points out that the city should seek to expand public access channels to include both standard definition and high definition channels, and also invest in equipment upgrades to the tune of more than $3 million. The list goes on, but here is a wrap up on the public access portion:

Comcast subscribers in the Philadelphia area are currently providing $0.26 per subscriber, per month to support public access channels only. Over a 10-year period, if subscribership holds steady, and all subscribers in all four franchise areas are factored in, the amount projected to be generated is approximately $8,580,000. This falls substantially short of the projected cost to meet all PEG access needs described in the Report, which total $32,662,870 over 10-years and require an increase in the amount of funding currently provided.

The report also points out that the city is in need of telecommunications improvement to their own infrastructure, including recommending a dark fiber network connecting government locations costing over $11 million.

So in other words, subscribers are complaining of costs, but the authors of this survey seem to desire an increase in costs to fund public access channels. And you wonder why your cable bill is so much. The company will try to do their best at responding to these results in the most politically correct way possible. In fact they did post a blog post here.

At the same time, as you read the headlines, realize it is just politics as usual.

I urge the company to continue to improve the customer experience, but I also urge someone to fight for the customer and keep costs down. This report is not an example of that.

Frank Eliason is the former Senior Director of Customer Service at Comcast, and the author of @YourService, published by Wiley. He currently works in the banking industry in New York City, and lives with his family in Robbinsville, NJ. You can follow him on Twitter @FrankEliason.

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